Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 3 No. 2, December 1985

'In the People's Name': Populism as a Political Form

Cathy Greenfield

Populism, as a variable and powerful form of political ideology and calculation, has received little analysis in comparison to the scrutiny of the generalised political formations of liberalism, socialism, communism and democracy. Still less of this analysis has ad dressed populism as first and foremost a political question. Repeatedly, the political problems populism throws up are treated as the second order effects of a phenomenon grounded in areas of the social domain (and knowledge relations) other than 'the political'. Yet populism, as well as forcing itself to the attention of those who have had the questionable political pleasure of living in Queensland and, more recently, under a Hawke government—the populist ideological mobilisations of which Max Teichmann is putting on the intellectual-political agenda (Teichmann, 1983:28-29)—is an insistent form of political essentialism with real effects on how we pose a range of political questions. The following pages outline some strategies for analysis of this political form whose effects for ideological struggle and political analysis have yet to be widely and seriously calculated. [1]

Such analysis must start not with the question 'what is populism?' but rather, 'what currencies has the term 'populism' had? ' The notion of 'currency' helps us to focus on the relative and mobile value of a concept determined by its effective circulation and repetition, and to distance us from the search for pure, intrinsic, originary meanings.

The currencies of 'populism' have been multiple and contested (see Allcock, 1971). For example, 'populism' has named specific historical movements for social reform, in particular the narodnichestvo in Russia in the 1870s, and the movement culminating in the U.S. People's Party in the 1890s. (It has been pointed out that the relation between the two movements owes more to the lexical translation of 'narodnichestvo' than to other criteria) (Worsley, 1969:248). And it has been the name given to the phenomenon caused by the social dislocation and economic variances engendered by shifts in socio-economic formations (Stewart, 1969). Thus Third World populism has been treated as an effect of imperialism (Worsley, 1969), the U.S. Populists


as a response to monopoly capital (Hofstadter, 1969), and the narodnichestvo to an imminent industrialisation (Walicki, 1969). A branch of this form of analysis is the traditional marxist rejection of populism as a 'false consciousness' of socio-economic conditions which, it argues, can only be properly expressed in (what have been pointed out as the also generalising) terms of class struggle. A local example is Humphrey McQueen's work, where, writing on Henry George, land reform and the single tax issues dominating early labour politics in Australia, he treats these populist influences as the more or less unmediated outcome of socio-economic phenomena (McQueen, 1971:141-176, 196-198).

Something needs to be said about the usefulness of such treatments. While not contesting the relevance of socio-economic questions to political formations such as populism I want to stress that socio-economic conditions cannot be used as the chart from which we can read off necessary political effects such as the mobilisation of general and unified support for political initiatives. When socio economic conditions are used in this way we are told nothing, or at best given an inadequate account, of how such political effects are materially and specifically secured. Analysis of this type thereby produces a disabling disregard for multiple, local but not necessarily unconnecting political struggles. And it is not only socio-economic ana lyses of populism of which this must be said: of the analyses indicated below similar indictments can be made of their occupation of the space of political analysis coupled with their reductive concepts of 'the political', which are if anything less helpful than an understanding of the political as an expression of the socio-economic.

For instance, 'populism' has also been claimed as more properly de scribing a broader anthropological configuration inclusive of the narrowly 'socio-economic'. The 'part-whole' theory of peasant communities locates populism as the response of a peasant or rural population within a society undergoing modernisation and usually accompanied by the phenomenon of an alienated elite who mobilise this 'part' society against the dominant bloc of the 'whole' society (Allcock, 1971 :380-385). Thus populism, in such an account, is the political expression of a 'lesser developed' human culture and perhaps also of an 'uprooted' one.

A fourth and influential currency of the term has been as the designation of a socio-psychological phenomenon. This sense emerged in rewritings of the intellectually and politically respectable tradition of populism derived from the U.S. People's Party. These rewritings (Shils, 1956; Reisman and Glazer, 1964; Viereck, 1964) occurred in the context of McCarthyism, with its witch-hunts and


anti-intellectualism being attributed to the 'innately populist mentality' of the American people. From being perceived as a reservoir of essentially democratic and reforming sentiment 'populism' came to stand as the expression of the irrationality, anti-liberalism and superstition of 'the masses'. These rewritings were made possible by a political science influenced by behaviourism, theories of mass society and of elites and reproducing the socio-psychological analyses of Nazism and Italian fascism as manifesting a social pathology utterly distinct from the social 'health' represented by liberal individualism.

At odds with and in response to the analyses of populism in the McCarthy period and as the psychological matrix from which McCarthyism issued, the term has signified a particular political philosophy which has declared populism as the grass roots discovery of what 'democracy' means. Manifestoes of populism emerged in the context of 1960s and 70s counter-cultural radicalism linking it to radical democratic traditions and calls for a 'participatory politics' to replace the 'politics of power' and hierarchical social structure organised under the institutions of 'elitist democracy' (Pranger, 1968; Tallian, 1977) .

To these definitions of 'populism' can be added another which I propose as at least naming the area to be investigated if we are to treat populism as, among other things, a political problem. 'Populism' can serve as the name for any strategy which invokes 'the people', in which 'the people' is either constructed or seems more or less directly expressive of any, sometimes several, of the phenomena described in the knowledges listed above (sociology, economics, history, anthropology, psychology, philosophy ... ). What follows is some discussion of a number of texts which deal with populism or associated categories in an attempt to map out the most useful way of thinking about populism.

Margaret Canovan's Populism (1981) does a good job of cataloguing the currencies of the terms and I would want to endorse her rejection of attempts to formulate a general theory of populism. Such attempts ignore or reduce the specific forms and differences of various populisms. They treat the politico-ideological relations in which these populisms are secured and which mark their specificities as somehow just given, in advance of their actual organisation and production and the particular struggles in which they are negotiated and forged, by a general theory grounded in the apparently unquestionable authority of an epistemology. This may provide us with a seemingly stable base for political interpretation or commentary but what we will find ourselves repeating is a general prediction of 'how struggles


go' which may simply fail to provide the conditions of visibility for the forces and tactics involved in actual and possible struggles. And what can never be scrutinised from such a base are the particular struggles in which our epistemological base is negotiated, forged and reproduced or transformed. In other words, according to these disabling conceptions, knowledge can only take the form of enlightenment by the unveiling of what already exists (as opposed to a material production), in relation to which 'politics' can occupy only the space of an exterior mechanics.

But if Canovan rejects the possibility of any of the theories of populism that she details functioning as a general theory it is not because she argues the inconsistency of providing a general theory or epistemological base for any politics; neither does she address the undeclared politicality of epistemology. It is because she finds the theories of populism lacking in relation to the real-empirical populist forms against which she measures them. For Canovan, theories of populism are descriptive or explanatory and political forms are expressive of real entities which in the case of populism is 'the people'—a slippery and questionable object she admits, but one which is amorphously centralised in Canovan's discourse as a force to be more or less well expressed in different populist political forms. This prevents Canovan from grasping fully both the politicality of theories of populism (that in many ways they produce the populisms she would measure them against) and 'the political' as producing effects in the social domain rather than as an effect of 'the real' (understood as distinct from historically produced realities, and functioning instead with the final authority and autonomy of the 'base' in base/superstructure models) .

Grounded in a phenomenological epistemology which operates in the text as a shifting between a political 'real' and political analyses, Canovan's work, while useful in the attention it pays to changing ana lyses, remains at the level of commentary. While it describes certain contestations of political forms it fails to provide the specificity necessary for basing present contestations of these. Such contestations (and transformations) would require a finer differentiation of forms of political analysis, organisation and calculation than could be accommodated in Canovan's presentation of the political.

However, the area of such struggle is one that Canovan points to wards very usefully, that is, between forms of populism and forms of democracy. There is an overlap between theories of populism and theories of democracy in that they both locate sovereignty in 'the people', though the senses of this category may differ. Canovan


points in the direction of this area of contestation between currencies of the term 'populism' and currencies of the term 'democracy'—a contestation which must be of central interest in an intellectual political consideration of populism—but she cannot pursue it be cause of the underworked nature of the category of 'the people' in her study. It is this 'work not done' that allows her to present 'populism' as covering the range from populist dictatorship (Nazism) to populist democracy (Switzerland), where 'democracy' is emptied of any other possible meanings than that of a specification of a particular populism. At the same time populism, as a political form, is guaranteed by (because it comes after, is expressive of ~ 'the people'.

What is not worked through satisfactorily by Canovan is that 'the people' is not a guarantee of any political form but a category constructed and unified by the active material work of political discourses and strategies. Like 'the national', 'the popular' and 'commonsense', such a category glosses over differences, complexities and struggles between, for instance, classes, genders, races, forms of sexuality, ethnicities, regions, generations. It is not enough to regard, as Canovan does, the invocation of 'the people' as a legitimation strategy for an administration if it is not recognised that this invocation is more than simply a rhetorical flourish but the extension of, and made possible by, a political work of construction at multiple, networked sites throughout the social domain.

Focussing on the category 'the people' as in many ways definitive of populist strategies and discourses, several other bodies of work can be introduced. Ernesto Laclau, in Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (I 977), presents a theory of populism which is the most theoretically rigorous work done in the area. What makes his theory more useful than other theories of populism is that he deals with populism as a political and ideological question and does not simply reduce it to socio-economic, anthropological or socio-psychological causes of which it is taken to be the superstructural political expression. To do this, Laclau labours against repeating the class reductionism that weakens much marxist theory. As a consequence, Laclau provides possibly the most plausible and complex accounts of Fascism and Peronism (as different populist forms).

He tackles the problem of class reductionism by arguing that a class has no predetermined political or ideological content and by introducing what he calls a second objective contradiction of the concrete social formation to the fundamental class contradiction; this is the contradiction between the people and the power bloc, or State. He specifies the category 'the people' further, in terms of 'popular democratic interpellations' (how individual subjects are addressed


and placed in non-class modes in the ideological positions from which they work in and make sense of the world). With this system of dual contradictions determining the social formation and an extend ed and sophisticated concept of hegemony derived largely from Gramsci, [2] Laclau describes a 'double articulation of political discourses' which enables him to account very plausibly for left, as well as right, populisms. Laclau argues that if individual ideological elements have no necessary class belongingness then, for example, 'the people' do not exist in 'the real'—an economic real—as antagonistic to a dominant ideology. That is, 'the people' do not exist as al ready and essentially tied to the interests of dominated classes be cause, having no necessary class belongingness, this category may equally be articulated by the dominant ideology. Class is specified not by any particular content, but as an activating principle.

Within this framework Laclau establishes the categories of democratic, popular and populist positionalities or interpellations. Thus a democratic positionality is constructed when the division between the dominant and dominated, or people and State, is discursively organised as a set of differences and not as an antagonism. This ensures that the dominated classes are integrated into the power bloc and their own interests and resistances neutralised.

A popular positionality is constructed when a discourse divides society between the people and the State and this operates as a fundamental antagonism structuring the society. A populist positionality is constructed out of the precondition of a popular positionality when the people/State opposition is presented as a dynamic point of confrontation. This is historically linked to a crisis of transformism, that is, a failure of neutralisation of the dominated sectors.

It is somewhat difficult to separate the popular from the democratic in this argument and to see how the popular positionality or ideology ever exists in its own right. However its function is to cover both populism of the dominant and of the dominated classes—left and right populisms. Thus, says Laclau, Hitler, Mao and Peron all headed populist regimes 'not because the social bases of their movements were similar; not because their ideologies expressed the same class interests but because popular interpellations appear in the ideological discourses of all of them, presented in the form of antagonism and not just of difference' (Laclau, 1977:174).

What popular interpellations presented in the form of difference characterise are liberal democratic parliamentary regimes with the discourses and practices of trade unionism neutralising the revolutionary potential of popular interpellations. Laclau thus is prescriptive,


insisting 'there is no socialism without populism' (Laclau, 1977:196-197). 'In this sense a "socialist populism" is not the most backward form of working class ideology but the most advanced—the moment when the working class has succeeded in condensing the ensemble of democratic ideology in a determinate social formation within its own ideology' (Laclau, 1977:174).

Laclau's interest is therefore in populism as the breaking up of a prevailing class hegemony and the assertion of a different hegemony, where hegemony consists of articulating 'different visions of the world in such a way that their potential antagonism is neutralized' (Laclau, 1977:161). Breaking through such an articulation of differences will consists of reversing this neutralisation of antagonism in order to orchestrate and construct out of antagonistic ideologies a new articulation, governed by a new class principle. It is within this framework that Laclau analyses and accounts for the specific ensemble of ideological elements of German fascism in a convincing but allegedly non-reductive way.

But while I would concur with the plausibility of this account and agree that his theory of populism is more useful and less reductive than others, Laclau's theory is better taken as a good account of how populist calculations arise and are carried out in political strategies than as a general theory of populism (and which carries within it a general theory of democracy).

Firstly, his differentiation of populist socialism (where he locates a fully potentialised democracy) from authoritarian populism ultimately rests on taking his class framework as an objective determination of the social formation and therefore ultimately directive of political forms. As an objective determination—a residue of Althusserian scientism—class contradiction makes a problematic starting point for political analysis (while 'class' remains one important way in which social struggles are made intelligible and negotiated in forms that challenge their habitual presentation in metaphysical terms and with their fundamental reference point 'the individual').

Secondly, 'the people', while not given an essentialist and static nature, is problematic in Laclau (a) because it is an abstract category before it is historically specified and constructed and (b) because it can therefore be part of an abstract, universal and objective contra diction of the people/State.

My next move in this brief mapping exercise is to suggest that there are different and useful directions to be taken up around the category 'the people' starting with work such as that of Peter Burke,


in Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (1979), which discusses the discovery of 'the people' by intellectuals in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Burke examines the shifts in the politically effective meanings of the term 'the people' and the transformations of the organisation of cultures in early modern Europe which allowed 'the people' to be constituted as something separate from 'an elite' and which could thus be said to be 'discovered'.

In other words, an oppositional avenue of investigation is that of specific historical formations of 'peoples' and the category 'the people'. Both are closely linked with the rise of nationalisms and locations of sovereignty elsewhere than in the church's mediation of divine law. Another text which is useful in this regard is Walter Ullman's Medieval Political Thought (1979) which charts the emergence of 'the people' in relation to great struggles over the organisation of power relations, and the line of argument—an apologia for, and teleological tracing of, the formation of English liberal democracy—demonstrates the centrality of this category in the ideological securing of representative democratic individualism as the historically assured, 'civilised' and desirable political form.

Burke directs us to the historical formation of 'the people' on a 'cultural' level and Ullman provides us with a history of some of the struggles in which its dominant currency was produced. More useful to our project and more precise is Foucault's work (eg., "On Govern mentality" (1979)) on the constitution of populations as an object of calculation and a target for what he describes as an 'art of government' taking form in the wake of the breakdown of feudal social relations and systems of laws. He counterpoises analysis of these strategies to theories of sovereignty and the way power relations are organised under these theories as a system of legitimate rights possessed by the sovereign and a corresponding legal obligation of its subjects to obey it.

Foucault traces the formulation of this 'governmentality'—which is the introduction of economy into the area of political practice—from Machiavelli's writings on the ordering of increasingly mobile populations, but sees it as developing as an effective set of practices only in the 18th century. He argues that it involves a new mechanism of power which does not rest on a notion of right, as does the theory of sovereignty in which power works as a pure limit set on freedom within the terms of the relationship sovereign-subject; instead,

This new mechanism of power is more dependent upon bodies and what they do than upon the Earth and its products. It is a mechanism of power which permits time and labour, rather


than wealth and commodities, to be extracted from bodies. It is a type of power which is constantly exercised by means of surveillance rather than in a discontinuous manner by means of a system of levies or obligations distributed over time. It presupposes a tightly knit grid of material coercions rather than the physical existence of a sovereign. It is ultimately dependent upon the principle, which introduces a genuinely new economy of power, that one must be able simultaneously both to increase the subjected forces and to improve the force and efficacy of that which subjects them (Foucault, 1980:104).

At the level of the individual Foucault names this a disciplinary power and at the level of the life of the population, a bio-power.

This conception of power, which can also be described as detailing power relations no longer adequately coded by the discourse of law, is evident in Machiavelli's formulations of some sort of notion of hegemony (viz., the distinction between the tactics of the 'fox and the lion' from which Gramsci develops the idea of the moments of 'force' and 'consent', and Machiavelli's remarks on the 'pacifying' role of religion), and later in Locke's ideas of a social contract. Both indicate a new way of organising social relations in terms other than the dominant feudal ones of fealty, obedience and obligation. Gramsci's notion of the 'integral state' as having a profoundly educative function and an enlarged domain of operation outlines a similar concern with a changed organisation of power relations. This is not to say that the form of power conceptualised in the theory of sovereignty disappears. Power as right (and the obligations it extracts) exists side by side with this new form of power, and it largely remains the way we talk and think about power relations today.

This enlarged conception of power, for which we can gather numerous sources, offers a different perspective on how we think about populism. For example, Ullman provides a detailed account of the emergence of populism through the thesis of 'ascending power' challenging that of a 'descending power' (authority filtering down from God through the church's monopoly on the reception of divine law, its delegation of power to the monarchy and finally to their subjects). However if Ullman is read in conjunction with this enlarged conception of power, it is clear that he is charting an ascending thesis of right rather than of power, and that in terms of power relations, much more complex changes are taking place than a simple reversal.

If we reject this notion of a simple reversal, one consequence is that we can rethink the people/State opposition. This is because the expanded, Foucauldian conception of power makes it clear that the


modern form of the 'state' and 'the people' were formed together and that there is no separate kernel of 'the people' that can be mobilised against 'the State' in a populist political form. This would be my main argument against Laclau's theory of populism. The formulation of the objective contradiction people/state or people/power bloc is grounded in a theory of power as right—that is, in a theory of sovereignty—and ignores demonstrably different organisations of power relations that are also operating, across a network of institutions, in modern societies. These decentred and unauthorised organisations of a multiplicity of heterogeneous, circulating, 'micro' power relations make political calculation for socialist transformation far more complex than a matter of locating power (to be resisted or mobilised) as the possession of a particular group or class or as that which a group or class is lacking.

What this leads me to say is that the project must be as much about the populism of much political analysis as about populisms in other, less relatively distanced public political domains—obviously the two are not discrete but complexly, internally linked. In attempts to formulate strategies and arguments about possible, more extensively democratic forms of political organisation, such analyses are inappropriate, and effectively blockages, because of their reductive or under-elaborated conception of power relations. As long as 'power' remains addressed only in terms of sovereignty any viable distinction between populist and possible democratic forms is unable to be constructed, rendering a whole range of possible sites of struggle (which may either form a chain or system with others, or remain isolated by disjunctions and contradictions but nonetheless important) unavailable for—invisible to—political calculation and strategy.

However, this is not to argue that 'the people' as a category is to be given away. It has to be contested because the theory of sovereignty is still operative, effective and pertinent to any political strategy. Articulation of 'the people' remains an important consideration for forms of political action, as Stuart Hall and Tony Bennett have demonstrated in their socialist and democratic analytical responses to Thatcherite authoritarian populism. Notably, Hall introduces the important distinction of the 'popular democratic' (Hall, 1980:157-185) as a domain or discourse to be strategically and specifically constructed actively to contest authoritarian constructions of, and appeals to, 'the people'.

Popular consent has to be won, but the arguments above indicate that (a) this consent has to be constructed in particular ways. That is,


it cannot just be 'won' as if the power guaranteed in that consent were a possession—which is how the theory of right conceives of power. In other words, it is not a matter of constructing the correct forms of representation of 'popular will', because that will simply does not exist prior to those forms. And (b) this expanded concept of power relations shows us that the domain in which a popular consent has to be democratically constructed is coextensive with the social—that the differentiated power relations of many institutions must be taken into account.

Two concerns are thus indicated: an expanded domain for political analysis, and a need for such analysis to be non-populist and non essentialist. Examples of such work which present new formulations and areas of investigation around present and possible democratic forms are Paul Corcoran's 'The Limits of Democratic Theory' (1983), Barry Hindess' 'Marxism and Parliamentary Democracy' (1980), Paul Hirst's 'Struggle in the Enterprise' (1981) and Raymond Williams "An Alternative Politics' (1981) .

Corcoran argues that 'democratic thought ... emerges in the struggle for social power ... as if in defiance of philosophy'. Democratic aims and ends are not extrinsic 'either morally or metaphysically' to their means (Corcoran, 1983:22). This displacement of a governing origin (in the people) or telos of democracy underlies the argument of the other articles cited. This has the effect of making the focus of their work the redirection of analysis away from any concern with an ideal form of democracy and towards the historically and institution ally varying mechanisms and strategies for contesting and democratically restructuring not a sovereign power but the specific power knowledge relations of particular significant spheres of social organisation (Hindess, 1980:45). It is within these specifications and rejecting any idea of an essential or 'given' constituency or form of 'the popular' that these articles present arguments for, as Williams puts it, 'the radical extension of genuine popular controls' and 'an at tempted break beyond the politics of the most benevolent or deter mined representative administration' (Williams, 1981 :4).

The attention to 'means' rather than to 'ends' that is signalled here does not mean that questions of morality are abandoned or marginalised, as is the usual objection to such a proposal. Rather it means that morality has to be thought and constructed as codes of behaviour operating in the same domain as that of the means structuring power knowledge relations and not, as has traditionally been the case with hegemonic philosophical discourses, thought of as secured in terms of a telos or absolute and static 'ends'.


It is this focus of analysis that needs to be brought to bear to consider the actual (and possible) constructions of populist and democratic power-knowledge relations and forms of consent in Australia. What need to be studied are the regularly and widely repeated political and ideological discourses that in Australia both establish and debate such widely used concepts as a national character or identity, the 'nature' of Australian society and culture as well as its political and economic culture, and seminal narratives of Australian history. What needs to be demonstrated is the production of categories of 'the popular', 'the national' and 'commonsense'—a combination characteristic of populism—and their use in many forms of political rhetoric (parliamentary and extra-parliamentary) in cementing a diversity of power and knowledge relations between genders, regions, classes, races, ethnicities, social groups.

Work could be usefully organised around sites in which popular audiences/constituencies are either at stake or the object of argument and where various concepts of the national-popular, to use a Gramscian term, and forms of commonsense are widely drawn on, contested or reformulated to significant political effect. So resources could be drawn from the politics involved in, for example, the construction of a 'popular memory' in the film industry, television documentary and advertising strategies; debates around the notion of multiculturalism and the question of a national language policy; debates over the organisation, function and regulation of the media in Australia; readings of and political arguments surrounding the federal constitution—and considerations of the strategies and effects of Queensland 'statism'; current debates over education philosophy, policy and school curricula. A particular area for consideration is the organisation and circulation of a populist 'Orwellian' discourse as an available and widely used means of understanding and describing political events and relations—a discourse relayed, for example, in the English classes of secondary schools where few other explicit means for ad dressing political questions are offered. [4]

The aim of such work would be to identify and analyse instances of populist discourse, not to fight these on their own conceptual terrain, but to 'dissolve' the category 'populism' as the one that usefully accounts for the power relations that constitute sites of intellectual and political struggle. In other words, such analysis would be only the preliminary step in reformulating these power relations in terms of the practices of 'governmentality'.

Cathy Greenfield teaches at Griffith University.




I wish to thank Peter Williams for his help in discussion and rewriting of this paper.

1. In Australia, preliminary work has been done by Rowse (together with his various collaborators), Lewis, Connell and Irving; and in Britain, by Laclau, Hall, Bennett, Schwarz.

2. Gramsci's concept of hegemony extends the Leninist sense of it as a simple class alliance (the proletariat leading the peasantry) by introducing the concept of a moral and intellectual leadership as necessary to the formation of any hegemony or counter-hegemony.

At the same time he displaces the reductionist view of hegemony as the domination of one world-view over others and which thus can only be challenged by its total destruction. Rather, Chantal Mouffe argues that for Gramsci, 'hegemony involves the creation of a higher synthesis, so that all its elements fuse in a 'collective will' which becomes the new protagonist of political action which will function as the protagonist of political action during that hegemony's entire duration. It is through ideology that this collective will is formed since its very existence depends on the creation of ideological unity which will serve as 'cement' ... the formation of the collective will and the exercise of political leadership depends on the very existence of intellectual and moral leadership' (Mouffe, 1979:184).

3. 'The integral state is, in effect, that state which has gone beyond the economic-corporate phase and which establishes itself as the organiser of a real historical bloc through the creation of an intellectual and moral unity. This was not the case with the ancient or medieval states ... ' (Mouffe, 1981:178).

4. Work has been done in Britain on this question. I am working on local permutations of these discursive formations in Australia. See Inside the Myth edited by Norris, especially contributions by Brown, Campbell, Hall and Norris.


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